Sport

KEEP THE STARS SHINING

Brains trust of officials and players is solving SA rugby’s player management problems

Brains trust of officials and players is solving SA rugby’s player management problems
Steven Kitshoff of Stormers during the United Rugby Championship quarterfinal match between DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls at DHL Stadium on 06 May 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Carl Fourie / Gallo Images)

A cap of 32 games per player per season, along with a mandated rest period, seems to be paying off for franchises and, hopefully, the Boks.

As the curtain falls on South African rugby’s first full season in Europe, opinion is divided on the success of the respective teams as well as the sustainability of a brutal, relentless schedule.

While steps have been taken to restrict the players’ workload, some of the coaches continue to ask for an increase in squad size – the cap is set at 50 – in order to meet the demands of competing in three tournaments: Champions Cup, United Rugby Championship (URC) and Currie Cup.

Discussions will continue as officials at SA Rugby and MyPlayers – the players’ organisation – try to plot the way forward.

A 32-game cap was necessary for South Africa’s first full season in the northern hemisphere, as was a mandatory eight-week break in a 12-month season with no allocated period for rest. Franchises and provinces initially agreed to these terms, but are said to be unhappy with the arrangement.

Wider discussions about a more aligned global schedule continue behind the scenes. It’s believed Sanzaar are willing to move the Rugby Championship from  August-September – rest time for players who compete in the northern hemisphere – to March-April.

It remains to be seen whether they will move the tournament to February-March, and align with the Six Nations in one global Test window – much like the other universal window in November that has been in place for many years. That would ensure all international players compete at the same time and – importantly – enjoy a period of rest at some point over a 12-month period.

SA’s never-ending season

South African rugby has been locked into a never-ending season since the mother body removed the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers from a dying Super Rugby tournament and entered them in the URC – a more vibrant and commercially attractive northern-hemisphere competition among clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

Since 2021, top South African players have featured for the Springboks from July to November, and for their respective clubs from September to June. The situation was exacerbated during the 2022-23 season when all four franchises – plus the Cheetahs – were included in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions.

After consulting conditioning experts, SA Rugby and MyPlayers took steps with player welfare in mind. A game cap of 32 matches was set for players based in South Africa – whether playing for the Boks or teams in the Champions Cup, URC or Currie Cup.

Franchises also agreed to a mandatory eight-week rest and conditioning period.

At the end of the 2021-22 season, Daily Maverick highlighted the impact of a never-ending season on specific players.

Springboks Jasper Wiese (38 games) and Vincent Koch (35) endured the heaviest workload. Although players based in Europe – Wiese at Leicester and Koch at Stade Français – are at the mercy of their clubs, there is typically an agreement between the Boks and the South African franchises regarding the management of top players.

Lukhanyo Am of the Sharks passes the ball during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Toulouse and Sharks at Stade Ernest Wallon on 08 April 2023 in Toulouse, France. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

In danger of burnout

Yet key South Africa-based Boks such as Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Damian Willemse all played between 25 and 30 matches and were in danger of burnout. For player welfare and to prepare them to peak at the 2023 World Cup, the game cap and mandatory rest period was implemented.

Fast forward to now, when a few European finals and a handful of Currie Cup matches are all that remain of the 2022-23 South African season. It’s encouraging to note – despite the addition of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup to the schedule – no individual who has been used by Jacques Nienaber’s Boks will finish the season with 30 or more outings.

Franchises kept their word and ensured all players had an eight-week break at some stage in 12 months – with some exceptions for players like Am with long injury layoffs.

“We’ll only complete our analysis at the end of the season, but initially it seems like the 32-game cap has worked well,” says MyPlayers CEO Eugene Henning. “Our stats show that no player will breach that cap.

“The crucial stat we are missing relates to injuries, specifically the short-term injuries such as concussions, which can rule players out for a week or so at a time. When we have all that information maybe we can make a better decision on how many players are needed in a squad.”

Thanks to all this, the Boks should arrive at the World Cup later this year in a good physical and mental space. Though the national side is the priority, SA Rugby also wants franchises to succeed in Europe.

The local teams have proven their worth in the URC, with the Stormers and Bulls contesting the inaugural final, and the Stormers qualifying for their second successive decider more recently.

However, South African teams have some way to go to challenge for the biggest prize in Europe: the Champions Cup trophy.

Although the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers all qualified for the playoffs, only the Sharks and Stormers got to the quarterfinals, where they met former champion teams, Toulouse and Exeter Chiefs. Ultimately, the travel and the size of the challenge proved too great.

South Africa’s collective challenge has been hampered by a travel situation that has seen them flying to Europe via the Middle East over the course of the season. The excessive number of flights and tours has been a talking point – and tournament organisers may address these issues ahead of next season.

The debate about squad size is set to continue, though. Henning suggests the right balance needs to be struck.

“MyPlayers doesn’t want the players to be overloaded with too many games,” he says. “On the other hand, we don’t want them to be underloaded either. If certain players don’t play enough [in a big squad], they won’t grow or get exposure.

“Is there a benefit to increasing the number of players in a squad in terms of the URC? We have an SA team hosting the final for the second year in a row. It doesn’t get any better than that. So what benefit would we get from adding more players to the squad if it doesn’t help performance in the URC?

‘We are still learning’

“On the other hand, you could say there is room for improvement in other tournaments as none of our teams progressed beyond the quarterfinals. The performance there can improve – and it’s a matter of determining whether a rise in the player cap will lead to an improvement.

“We’re still learning about this new season,” he added. “This has been our first full season in the northern hemisphere, so we can’t expect to know everything.

“Four-time champions Leinster and other top teams will have a better idea because they’ve been doing it for decades. We will get there.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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